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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Inaugural Lion's Lair Competition Awards $15,000 to Entrepreneurs

By Jon Cawley

Ten finalists presented their start-up ideas to a panel of local business leaders during the finals of Old Dominion University's first "Lion's Lair" entrepreneurial competition and the pitch for a fire starter product won the contest's top prize.

The first annual competition, hosted by the Strome Entrepreneurial Center, Old Dominion University Alumni Association and Strome Entrepreneurial Fellows, sought to reward innovative ideas for traditional and social entrepreneurship.

Held in conjunction with National Entrepreneurship Month celebrations at the University, and Global Entrepreneurship Week (Nov. 13-17), the competition challenged entrepreneurs to put their best ideas forward in two tracks - students; and alumni or employees. Finalists were selected in both the traditional entrepreneurship and the social entrepreneurship tracks.

"The Lion's Lair innovation Competition was planned to coincide with the National and Global Entrepreneurship Celebrations," said Nancy Grden, executive director of the Strome Entrepreneurial Center. "It is an opportunity to showcase ODU innovation as evidenced by our students, faculty, staff, and alumni."

After the pitches were heard by the panel of judges, four $3,000 winners were selected along with a fifth $3,000 prize for Best in Show.

The award winners were:

  • Matthew Yancer, for a simple and more reliable method of coupling, tethering or fastening foil vent duct to a duct pipe (such as those associated with household clothes dryers).
  • Janay Brown, for her Internet-based business Full Belly Delights, a gourmet retailer of bacon-based products.
  • Mike Beyrodt, for his product, Pull Start Fire, a pocket-sized fire starter.
  • Armando Russell, for Student Veteran House, a concept for a college campus accessible housing complex to allow disabled student veterans to more easily return to school.

Beyrodt also claimed the Best in Show award. He worked on his fledgling business at the Strome Entrepreneurial Center while an ODU student and now receives support services at the ODU Innovation Center - Norfolk.

In addition to noting that he was "blindsided" by the $6,000 in prize money, Beyrodt said the Strome Center was invaluable to his business development.

"I can't thank Nancy Grden (the Strome Center's executive director) enough. It was a great place to start," Beyrodt said. "Nancy was like having GPS - every time I got stuck or lost, she would say 'this is where you should go.'"

Grden said organizers were pleased with the number and quality of submissions to the Lions Lair competition.

"We've encouraged all applicants, not only finalists, to pursue their venture ideas, and we are here to assist," she said.

University Provost Augustine "Austin" Agho said the competition was unique because it is open not only to business majors but anyone in the University community.

"It takes a lot of courage and vision to come up with ideas and present something that's meaningful and tangible," he said, congratulating the finalists on their accomplishment.

Luke Hillier, an ODU alumnus, executive chairman of ADS, Inc. and sponsor of Lion's Lair, said he was "fired up" for the competition.

"A lot of people have great ideas and don't do anything with them," he said. "The magic is having the passion, dedication, excitement and focus to turn an idea into something real."

In the traditional entrepreneurship for alumni and employees category, the finalists were:

  • Vaibhev Dani, EduParadigm, for a marketplace to democratize education;
  • Mike Beyrodt;
  • Suzanne Leenders, Steora Sol, a smart bench that provides multiple modern technologies, including mobile internet and sensor and data gathering.

For students, the finalists were:

  • Janay Brown;
  • Matthew Yancer.

In social entrepreneurship, the finalists among faculty and staff or alumni are:

  • Philip Bleeker, Team Bleeker, a website for social gatherings of all types
  • Rufeng Liu, 6dlink, a friend-to-friend mobile business platform to share company resources

For students, the social entrepreneurial finalists included:

  • Ivan Trent, Social Connected, a smartphone app to allow ODU students to engage with the broader campus community
  • Armando Russell.

The entrepreneurial spirit extends year-round, and University-wide, at Old Dominion.

In remarks given during the competition, ODU President John R. Broderick said he and others in the region have long talked about the need to grow jobs and develop a talent force that is willing to stay in Hampton Roads.

"We have to find a way not only to energize good ideas, but keep them here," he said. "The types of things you are doing with knowledge and information is making the difference. This is exactly the type of thing we need to do more of here."

The University's campus-wide entrepreneurial efforts received a huge boost in 2014, with the gift of $11 million by the Strome Family Foundation of ODU engineering alumnus Mark Strome '78.

The gift from Mark and Tammy Strome enabled the creation of the Strome Entrepreneurial Center, which supports University-affiliated entrepreneurs at every stage of the business lifecycle. There, students, faculty, staff and alumni receive coaching and build business connections.

In addition, for the past three years, six faculty members have been selected annually for the Entsminger Fellows program. They are charged with bringing entrepreneurship into the University's academic colleges.

Old Dominion also has strived for decades to be a resource for the local business community through initiatives such as the Center for Enterprise Innovation (CEI), which evolved from the University's Business Gateway in 2014. The CEI seeks to foster local economic growth through a series of interconnected programs created to help local entrepreneurs, such as the Technology Applications Center, Women's Business Center and Hampton Roads Veterans Business Outreach Center.

In July, the ODU Innovation Center - Norfolk, a partnership between CEI and the City of Norfolk, was launched. It provides area entrepreneurs with collaboration space and a comprehensive program of services designed to grow a community of scalable entrepreneurial businesses within Norfolk's Innovation Corridor.

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